A funny thing happened to Fall Out Boy on the road to Infinity on High: they got famous. Before 2005's From Under the Cork Tree they were just another pop-punk unit from suburban Chicago happy to break even at shows with gas money. Next thing anyone knew, they were headlining arenas and being heralded as the new face of pop-punk alongside their peers in My Chemical Romance. It was a position that never seemed to rest easy with the guys, and because of this, Infinity on High seems a bit conflicted. Fall Out Boy wants to charm everyone here. They want to prove themselves to critics by moving past the confines of emo, allowing a love of all things pop to come right to the forefront. Yet they also want to resonate directly with those day-one fans who may long for the intimate VFW shows of yesterday. This disparity makes points of the record seem awkward, and for the first time, the band appears to over-think things. Pete Wentz's lyrics are oftentimes resentful, full of fame-induced angst, and really emphasize his need to drive home his position that stardom has not changed the band. So it's in weird contrast to these sentiments that Jay-Z is the one opening the album and calling out haters who said FOB would fail. The glorification of their celebrity abruptly switches into Patrick Stump stating (pleading?) that the band is not buying into the hype -- nor do they even want it. "Make us poster boys for your scene/But we are not making an acceptance speech" is defiant, and when his sweet voice asserts, "Crowds are won and lost and won again/But our hearts beat for the diehards," it's clear that FOB still holds their roots close. But this is contradicted by the fact that the album's majority is far and away their poppiest material to date, more pop/rock than pop-punk, which inevitably means more interesting to those who know them just as that "Dance, Dance" band with the media-whoring bassist, Pete Wentz.
So the results are hit-and-miss. The Maroon 5-ish "I'm Like a Lawyer..." is glaringly one of the Babyface-produced tracks, and with a vocal hook uncomfortably close to Phil Collins' cover of "Groovy Kind of Love," it plays like the guys were the ruffled house band for a prom. It's ill-fitting, a notion that continues in cuts like the soft rock piano of "Golden" and the airy "The (After) Life of the Party." But on the flip side, the fizzy urban-pop nugget "This Ain't a Scene, It's an Arms Race" dances around double-time hardcore choruses and backing choral singers with dizzying precision and infectious results, while dramatic gospel flair excellently lines "Hum Hallelujah." Stump's vocal control and agility is incredible; he truly brings songs alive in a way uniquely his own, and it's a toss-up as to whether he or drummer Andrew Hurley should get this record's gold star. So it's not to say the pop explosion that is Infinity on High is all bad. Even the studio extravagances -- multiple producers (Babyface and Butch Walker handle a few outside Neil Avron) and decadent layers of horns, string sections, and choirs -- don't detract from its overall enjoyability. Yet unlike My Chemical Romance, who knew exactly what they wanted in the grand theatrics of 2006's Welcome to the Black Parade and completely went for it without apology, Fall Out Boy is at odds. Previously, they could easily skip around with pop baggage, hardcore tension, cunning wordplay, and infectious melodies without losing their edge. Now they just seem too self-aware. Don't misunderstand: once Infinity on High sinks in, it's indeed a fun record. But for a band that was once so self-assured and able to utilize its talents so compellingly, the album is regrettably haphazard. Fall Out Boy may hate people who "dissect us 'til this doesn't mean a thing anymore," but in trying to appeal to all of them, they lost something unique along the way.